Schools are being offered a free internet "health check" by Network for Learning (N4L) ahead of this year's NCEA exams - more of which are expected to take place online this year following a funding boost.

The Crown agency, which was created to help schools take advantage of Ultrafast Broadband (UFB) fibre connections, says the digital health check will assess if internet speed is up to snuff overall; whether there are any "dead-spots" for wireless connectivity in an exam hall or classroom; test security; and gauge whether students can access unauthorised websites.

Through a partnership with the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA), Crown company N4L is preparing for more than 300 schools to take up the free offer. There's scope for private IT companies (listed at the foot of this page) to help out.

This is the second year N4L has offered the pre-exam health checks while also supporting schools throughout the exam period with its helpdesk. Orewa College was among 140 schools assessed last year (of around 2500 total) and Deputy Principal Sue McCarthny has signed up again for a 2020 checkup.

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"These assessments give our school the assurance we need that there will be no unexpected surprises during the exam period," says McCarthny, who expects around 700 of her students to sit at least 17 online exams in November.

"I was really impressed how thoroughly N4L checks all the exam rooms, and in doing so they picked up a few shortfalls which could have led to an issue during exams that we weren't prepared for. They also suggested improvements we could make and explained the benefits and risks in a way that helped us make informed decisions on what we should do to better prepare for online exams."

Covid-era funding boost

Two-thirds of the NCEA (National Certificate of Educational Achievement) exams can now be delivered digitally in 2020 thanks to a recent funding boost announced by the Minister of Education in June.

For this year's NCEA students, the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) is on track to offer 58 NCEA digital exams across 21 subjects, at NCEA Levels 1, 2 and 3. This represents approximately two-thirds of NCEA examinations and is a significant increase from the 35 examinations successfully offered in 2019.

Last year, almost 200 schools participated in NCEA online, with more than one in 10 students at those schools sitting one or more exams digitally.

"The $38.7 million investment enables NCEA online to continue to grow, as digital learning becomes more accessible and popular," Chris Hipkins said.

Over the 2020/21 and 2021/22 financial years, NZQA will spend approximately $14.5m each year on enhancing and delivering NCEA online, Hipkins says.

An additional $4.8m annually will allow NCEA online to continue operating in the future.

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More broadly, Hipkins announced today:

• $38 million to help schools cover unexpected costs related to COVID-19
• $69 million upgrade for online learning, including Facebook-like profiles
• a $107 million contingency funding to support school construction suppliers facing additional costs due to the lockdown.

The current health check programme is for exams sat on school property, but N4L has recently extended its internet filter to cover at-home learners and a recent N4L pilot used portable hotspots to get safe internet to Te Akau ki Pāpāmoa students who didn't have access at home (see clip below).